By John Quinn
“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.” I remember! Most of the reading public knows Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn; now meet Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, the young heroes of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” a classic coming-of-age story by master of fantasy Ray Bradbury. Bradbury adapted his 1962 novel for film, and then mounted a stage production with his Pandemonium Theatre Company in Los Angeles in October 2003.
Life is pretty good for a 13-going-on-14-year-old in the sleepy backwater of Green Town, Illinois in the 1930s. But boys being boys, adventure is a quarry worth the chase. When an itinerant lighting rod salesman Tom Fury (a pitch-perfect Paul Hopper) warns of an approaching storm, the boys are not yet aware there are foul winds that wrack the soul harder that any that torment the body. The storm heralds its arrival with breezes bearing the scent of cotton candy and the whistle of a calliope.
Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has arrived in the night. This carnival doesn’t bring joy and laughter, it breeds pain and fear. Mr. Dark offers the Faustian bargain of getting what you wish – for a price. The prime mover is a time machine disguised as a carousel, which can provide a kid instant adulthood or renew the lost youth of Charles Halloway, Will’s father. The scene is set for another of the eternal battles between Good and Evil, Temperance and Temptation. Writes Bradbury, “And that was the October week when they grew up overnight, and were never so young anymore … ”
Although the novelist here is also the playwright, on many levels the scripting leaves us disappointed. It is often bandied about that short stories are the better source material for screenplays and play scripts. For instance, Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” ran about 11 pages when originally published in “The New Yorker.” In “Something Wicked,” Bradbury works hard to compress his story, but the plot proceeds at a frantic pace, leaving the audience hard pressed to keep up.
The other problem with the adaptation is personal – and I’m violating one of my cardinal rules of literary criticism. I find it useless to compare source material as it is interpreted in different genres. Thus you’ll never hear me say, “But the book is so much better” – until now. Bradbury’s prose borders on sheer poetry; yet in adapting prose to play most of the description must be seen, not heard. Consider the passage in the novel describing the arrival of the carnival: “The train skimmed on softly, slithering, black pennants fluttering, black confetti lost on its own sick-sweet candy wind, down the hill, with the two boys pursuing, the air was so cold they ate ice cream with each breath.” No visual image can stoke the imagination as powerfully as Bradbury’s language.
Lastly, there is a real gamble in producing this show. The lead actors are teen-age boys, and the script puts a heavy burden on young shoulders. Fortunately for Meadow Brook, the theater has the dynamic duo of Ryan Lynch as Will and Jacob Zelinski as Jim. They are capable and engaging.
Director Travis W. Walter is ably served by his cast, in particular Aaron H. Alpern as the sinister Mr. Dark and Marty Smith as Charles Halloway, champion of good. The basic themes of the play are explored in their remarkable second act dialogue. There’s so much to ponder in the text once again reading it, rather than hearing it, might be more satisfying.
Technically, the show is up to the theater’s usual high standards, especially Kristen Gribbin’s novel set that uses scrim material as facing for a street facade, allowing the carnival to be pitched “behind” the town.
We’re big on celebration in this country, and it is gratifying that Meadow Brook has chosen to mount a show that appeals to all ages for the Halloween season. There’s no trick here, folks; just treat.
‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 29. $30-39. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com